Tao Liu’s criminal odyssey took him from money laundering in Mexico to a massive scam in China to Trump’s exclusive New Jersey golf club. Investigators believed he may have infiltrated U.S. politics as part of a Chinese intelligence operation.
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This is part two of an investigation into a revolutionary money laundering system involving Chinese organized crime, Latin American drug cartels and Chinese officials, and how a major figure in the scheme managed to meet former President Donald Trump. Read part one: “How a Chinese American Gangster Transformed Money Laundering for Drug Cartels.”
In July 2018, President Donald Trump met at his New Jersey golf club with a Chinese businessman who should have never gotten anywhere near the most powerful man in the world.
Tao Liu had recently rented a luxurious apartment in Trump Tower in New York and boasted of joining the exclusive Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
But Liu was also a fugitive from Chinese justice. Media reports published overseas three years before the meeting had described him as the mastermind of a conspiracy that defrauded thousands of investors. He had ties to Chinese and Latin American organized crime. Perhaps most worrisome, the FBI was monitoring him because of suspicions that he was working with Chinese spies on a covert operation to buy access to U.S. political figures.
Yet there he sat with Trump at a table covered with sandwiches and soft drinks, the tall windows behind them looking onto a green landscape.
A longtime Trump associate who accompanied Liu was vague about what was discussed, telling ProPublica that they talked about the golf club, among other things.
“He was a climber,” said the associate, Joseph Cinque. “He wanted to meet Trump. He wanted to meet high rollers, people of importance.”
Documented by photos and interviews, the previously unreported sit-down reveals the workings of a Chinese underworld where crime, business, politics and espionage blur together. It also raises new questions about whether the Trump administration weakened the government’s system for protecting the president against national security risks.
For years, Liu had caromed around the globe a step ahead of the law. He changed names, homes and scams the way most people change shoes. In Mexico, he befriended a Chinese American gangster named Xizhi Li, aiding Li’s rise as a top cartel money launderer, according to prosecution documents and interviews with former national security officials.
“I’ve been doing illegal business for over 10 years,” Liu said in a conversation recorded by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2020. “Which country haven’t I done it in?”
Liu surfaced in the U.S. political scene after Trump took office. In early 2018, he launched a high-rolling quest for influence in New York. He courted political figures at gatherings fueled by Taittinger champagne and Macanudo cigars, at meals in Michelin-starred restaurants and in offices in Rockefeller Center. He may have made at least one illegal donation to the GOP, according to interviews.
By the summer, Liu had achieved his fervent goal of meeting Trump. Two months later, he met the president again at Bedminster.
On both occasions, Liu apparently found a loophole in a phalanx of defenses designed to protect the president. The Secret Service screens all presidential visitors on official business, subjecting foreigners to intense scrutiny. In addition to their top priority of detecting physical threats, agents check databases for people with ties to espionage or crime who could pose a risk to national security or a president’s reputation.
Asked about Liu’s encounters with the president, the Secret Service’s chief of communications, Anthony Guglielmi, said, “There were no protective or safety concerns associated with these dates. The Bedminster Club is a private facility, and you will have to refer to organizers when it comes to who may have been allowed access to their facilities.”
The Secret Service does not have a record of Liu meeting Trump on the president’s official schedule, a Secret Service official said. Instead, the encounters apparently occurred during periods when the president did not have official business, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. While staying at his clubs at Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster as president, Trump often left his living quarters to mingle with members and their guests in public areas. The Secret Service screened those people for weapons, but did not do background checks on them, current and former officials said.
“Did the Secret Service know every name involved?” the Secret Service official said. “No. Those are called ‘off-the-record movements,’ and we are worried about physical safety in those situations. We don’t have the time to do workups on everybody in that environment.”
As a member or a member’s guest, Liu could have entered the club without showing identification to the Secret Service and met with Trump, the official said. It appears, in short, that Liu avoided Secret Service background screening.
During both visits, Liu accompanied Cinque, with whom he had cultivated a friendship and explored business ventures. Cinque said that he and his guests had easy access to the president at Bedminster.
“I just go in every time I want,” Cinque said in an interview with ProPublica. “I’m with Donald 44 years. … The Secret Service, they trust me. Because I got a great relation with the Secret Service and I’m not gonna bring anybody bad next to Trump.”
But Cinque now regrets ever having met Liu.
“He’s a professional con man,” Cinque said. “There was a lot of flimflam with him. He conned me pretty good.”
Cinque has given conflicting accounts about the July 2018 meeting. In an interview with a Chinese media outlet that year, he said Liu had spent three hours with the president. Last week, though, he told ProPublica that he had exaggerated the length of the conversation and Liu’s role in it.
A spokesperson for Trump and officials at the Trump Organization and Bedminster club did not respond to requests for comment. The Chinese embassy also did not respond to a request for comment.
Liu’s case is one of several incidents in which Chinese nationals sought access to Trump in murky circumstances, raising concerns in Congress, law enforcement and the media about espionage and illegal campaign financing.
Liu did catch the attention of other federal agencies. His political activity in New York caused FBI counterintelligence agents to begin monitoring him in 2018, ProPublica has learned, before his encounters with Trump at Bedminster. His meetings with the president only heightened their interest, national security sources said.
Then, in early 2020, DEA agents came across Liu as they dismantled the global money laundering network of his friend Li. Reconstructing Liu’s trail, the DEA grew to suspect he was a kind of spy: an ostentatious criminal who made himself useful to Chinese intelligence agencies in exchange for protection.
The DEA agents thought Liu could answer big questions: What was he doing with the president? Was he conducting an operation on behalf of Chinese intelligence? And what did he know about the murky alliance between Chinese organized crime and the Chinese state?
But the DEA clashed with the FBI over strategy. And by the time DEA agents zeroed in on Liu, he had holed up in Hong Kong. The pandemic had shut down travel.
If the agents wanted to solve the walking mystery that was Tao Liu, they would have to figure out a way to go get him.
This account is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former national security officials based in the U.S. and overseas, as well as lawyers, associates of Liu and others. ProPublica also reviewed court documents, social media, press accounts and other sources. ProPublica granted anonymity to some sources because they did not have authorization to speak to the press or because of concerns about their safety and the sensitivity of the topic.
Prowling the World
Liu grew up in comfort and privilege.
Born in 1975 in Zhejiang province, he studied business in Shanghai and began prowling the world. He accumulated wealth and left behind a trail of dubious ventures, failed romances and children, according to court documents, associates and former national security officials. He lived in Poland and Hong Kong before moving in 2011 to Mexico City, where he dabbled in the gambling and entertainment fields.
Soon he met Li, the Chinese American money launderer, who also sold fraudulent identity documents. Liu bought fraudulent Guatemalan and Surinamese documents from Li and acquired a Mexican passport, according to prosecution documents and interviews. He played a crucial early role helping Li build his criminal empire, according to former investigators.
Both men had links to the 14K triad, a powerful Chinese criminal syndicate, according to former investigators and law enforcement documents. Moving between Mexico and Guatemala, they were on the vanguard of the Chinese takeover of the underworld that launders money for the cartels.
But in 2014, Liu embarked on a caper in China. He touted a cryptocurrency with an ex-convict, Du Ling, known as the “queen of underground banking,” according to interviews, media reports and Chinese court documents.
It was all a fraud, authorities said. Chinese courts convicted the banking queen and others on charges of swindling more than 34,000 investors from whom they raised over $200 million.
Although accused of being the mastermind, Liu eluded arrest, according to court documents, associates and other sources. He popped up in Fiji as a private company executive promising infrastructure projects inspired by President Xi Jinping’s visit months earlier to promote China’s development initiative, according to news reports and interviews. Liu even hosted a reception for the Chinese ambassador, according to news reports.
Liu’s activities in Fiji fit a pattern of Chinese criminals aligning themselves with China’s foreign development efforts for mutual benefit, national security veterans say. Liu claims corrupt Chinese officials were his partners in Fiji, “but then they threw him under the bus,” said his lawyer, Jonathan Simms.
After allegations surfaced about his role in the cryptocurrency scandal in China, Liu fled to Australia. Airport police there downloaded his phone and found discussions about fraudulent passports from countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, according to Simms and other sources.
In 2016, Liu returned to Mexico. He soon obtained a U.S. business/tourist visa by making false statements to U.S. authorities about whether he was involved in crime, prosecution documents say.
Now known as Antony Liu, he was ready to make a name for himself.
Money and Politics
Yuxiang Min is an entrepreneur in Manhattan’s Chinatown. For years, he has nurtured a “Chinese American dream”: to prosper in the herbal medicine industry by planting 16,000 acres of licorice in a desert in China’s Gansu province.
After meeting Min in early 2018, Liu promised to make the dream a reality, Min said.
“He made me believe he was very well-connected in China,” Min said. “And I think he was. He showed me photos of himself with top Chinese officials.”
Min said one photo appeared to show Liu with Xi, China’s president, before he took office. Between 2002 and 2007, Xi served in senior government positions in two places where Liu had lived, Zhejiang and Shanghai. But Min said he did not have the photo, and ProPublica has not confirmed its existence.
Liu rented Chinatown offices from Min, who said he helped the wealthy newcomer buy a top-of-the-line BMW and find a translator. Despite his weak English, Liu was charismatic and persuasive, associates said. He bankrolled dinners, a concert, an outing on a yacht; he flaunted the flashy details on his social media. He founded Blue Ocean Capital, an investment firm that did little actual business, according to associates, former national security officials and court documents.
He even gained access to the United Nations diplomatic community, sharing his office suite in Rockefeller Center with the Foundation for the Support of the United Nations. The foundation’s website says it is a nongovernmental organization founded in 1988 and that it is affiliated with the UN. A UN spokesperson confirmed that the foundation had “consultative status,” which gave its representatives entry to UN premises and activities.
Liu became a financial benefactor of the foundation and was named its “honorary vice chairman.” Through the foundation, he was able to organize a conference at UN headquarters with speakers including publishing executive Steve Forbes and former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, according to interviews, photos and media accounts.
The Bulgarian mission to the UN helped secure the venue for the event, and ambassadors from seven countries attended, according to online posts and interviews. The mission did not respond to a request for comment.
Although it is startling that someone with Liu’s background could play a role in hosting an event at the UN, it is not unprecedented. In past cases, wealthy Chinese nationals suspected of links to crime and Chinese intelligence have infiltrated UN-affiliated organizations as part of alleged bribery and influence operations.
Janet Salazar, the president of the foundation, did not respond to phone calls, texts or emails. Efforts to reach foundation board members were unsuccessful. Emails to Salazar and the foundation in New York bounced back.
UN officials did not respond to queries from ProPublica about what vetting Liu received, if any.
“We are not aware of the story of Mr. Tao Liu,” the UN spokesperson said.
Calderón said in an email that he was invited through a speakers bureau to give a talk on sustainable development. The event included Asian participants who did not appear to speak English, Calderón said, and he had little interaction with them other than posing for photos.
Forbes’ staff did not respond to requests for comment.